My Husband’s Ex Is Trying to Turn My Little Homeschooling Situation Into a Total Zoo

It’s Advice Week! In On Second Thought, we’ll revisit questions from the archives and dig into how much has changed since Slate began giving advice in 1997—and how much hasn’t. Read all stories here.

For this edition of Care and Feeding, we unearthed questions submitted to Slate in 2020. We’ve asked today’s columnists to weigh in with modern-day sensibilities.

On July 13, 2020, “Can’t Teach Everyone” wrote to Dear Prudence:

I’m currently home-schooling my 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, since I have an education degree. My 12-year-old stepdaughter has moved in with us full-time because everyone agrees the pandemic will not be over by August. “Anna” is my stepdaughter’s mother, and she has two stepdaughters of her own. They are only a little younger than my stepdaughter and live primarily with their mother. I am familiar with the girls, since they’ve often joined the other kids in family activities, but have only met their mother a few times. Anna has asked my husband and me to include her stepdaughters in the home-schooling. She, her husband, and their mother will be unable to care for them. Their mother would drop them off at my house for “school hours.”

I appreciate her need, and we don’t have a bad relationship, but I have no idea what the girls are like at school or what their educational needs are. I already have my hands full creating a middle school curriculum for my stepdaughter, in addition to one for my own children.
How do we disengage the request while keeping our co-parenting relationship solid? This isn’t just watching them for a weekend! Help.

At the time, Prudence replied:

I think you just tell her that you can’t do it and hope that she responds rationally and compassionately, instead of torpedoing your co-parenting relationship in retaliation. As you say, Anna’s in a difficult situation, but trying to teach two elementary-age students and three junior high–age students five days a week is no small feat and would mean creating—and teaching!—multiple lesson plans simultaneously. You might encourage Anna to speak to some of her stepdaughters’ friends’ parents about sharing lesson plans, remote and at-home teaching, and/or child care. But I think you’re right to turn down this request, and I have every confidence that you can do so respectfully, citing your own limitations of time, energy, and resources, without either breaking a promise or feeling guilty.

Care and Feeding’s advice from the future:

There is a huge difference between homeschooling three children–already a difficult task!—and homeschooling five children. It would be one thing if all the kids were the same age, but you’re already dealing with three different academic levels as it is. Furthermore, unless their mother, stepmother and father all work from home (and even if they do), having the girls come to your house daily increases the possibility that someone in your immediate family will contract COVID. You have every right to say that this is simply too tall an order for you and that you don’t have the capacity to teach all of the children. If these two other girls can attend their regular school remotely, then perhaps you may consider allowing them to spend the school days with you, with the understanding that if they cannot behave, this arrangement can’t continue. Otherwise, you should feel no guilt about simply saying no.

Want Advice on Parenting, Kids, or Family Life?

Submit your questions to Care and Feeding here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

On Aug. 9 2020, “Blinded by Love” wrote to Care and Feeding:

I know you’ve covered setting boundaries with family/friends in reference to the virus before, but I need some additional assistance. I’m overdue to have my first baby any minute now, and am having a hard time coping with all the requests to meet him. Everyone seems to think they are doing an excellent job quarantining, but I’ve noticed some unintentional dishonesty from loved ones. For example, a friend said, “You should come by. We work from home and get groceries delivered so we haven’t seen anyone in two months.” But when I did “come by,” I heard this: “Oh yeah, my sister made this amazing chili when we went over last weekend!” Situations like these (I haven’t actually gone near other people since this experience, but this sort of discrepancy comes up in conversation with others if I listen long enough) have rattled me. Now I am simultaneously mournful about the possibility of my baby not seeing anyone but his parents, uncle, and grandma until some mythical future time, and paralyzed by the thought that I can’t trust my people (and desperate to know how to express this without being cruel).

Complicating matters is that my two closest friends are eager to meet him and it feels wrong to hurt them via exclusion. One has a husband who works in NYC, so I feel strongly that this represents too big a risk—but I’m having a hard time dealing with the pain I know this is causing her, especially because she feels just as strongly that there isn’t a big risk (though she’s being graciously respectful of my wishes, and not pushing). My other closest friend is in the medical field! I know that allowing her to hold my baby is not the safest thing to do, but it’s unthinkable to imagine her NOT. She is more aware of the risks and more careful than anyone I know (but still, she works in a hospital—though she hasn’t seen COVID-19 patients in months, as she specializes in surgery). I am uncomfortable having a different standard for different people, but it seems ridiculous to not let her be with my baby! Sigh. This is so hard. My partner, by the way, is on board with whatever I decide.

At the time, C&F replied, in part:

… My feeling about all of this is that you do get to have different “standards” for different people. You get to choose, whether your choices are logical or not (and bear in mind that the fewer contacts overall, the safer, so you are lowering your—and your infant’s—risk by keeping contact down to as few people as you can). Decide who you feel OK about based on whatever metric feels right to you. And when it comes to telling the people you love that they can’t visit, use this age-old trick—blaming yourself: “I know I may be being irrational/I know I am probably being overprotective, and I feel terrible about this, but it’s what I have to right now. I’m so sorry.” Don’t tell people you love that you don’t trust them. Don’t call them out on their own illogic. Just Say No.

Tell them all that as soon as you’re sure it’s safe, you’ll be thrilled to have them meet the baby in person (and until then, rely on video calls). Oh, and for those people you decide are the exceptions, like your friend who works in a hospital? Make a no-social-media-posts (no photos on Instagram, no “I’m so happy I got to meet my dear friend’s baby!” tweet) rule. It’s the least they can do in gratitude for your letting yourself be blinded by love.

Care and Feeding’s advice from the future:

These unprecedented times call for measures that may seem extreme but are essential to keeping us and our loved ones safe. It will certainly be difficult to limit your newborn’s interactions to a select group of people in your pandemic “bubble,” but it is necessary. The world will eventually get back to some semblance of normal and you’ll be able to introduce your bundle of joy to your besties then. Your friend who works in the medical field, of all people, should be a bit more cautious than it sounds like she is. Also, you’ve already observed how people can be less than honest about the amount of exposure they’ve had to folks outside their home; your infant is just too vulnerable for you to be taking risks with her health right now. Isolating ourselves for months on end is far from ideal, but it’s a necessary step we have to take to slow the transmission of COVID-19. When vaccines become widely available, you can plan to let your friends come see your baby.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· Missed earlier columns this week? Read them here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

On March 29, 2020, “A Long Road Ahead” wrote to Care and Feeding:

My anxiety about COVID-19 is through the roof. I have two children, ages 1 and 3, who are now home indefinitely in my family’s attempt to socially distance. My problem is that now with every cough that any of us have (my husband and I are recovering from colds and now it seems the kids have caught it), I find myself online Googling symptoms. I have a virtual appointment with my therapist scheduled for next week, but I feel like this is going to be how I react to any cough or sore throat for the next several months, and I’m exhausted thinking about it. I don’t know how to navigate this pandemic—specifically, how to do it so that my kids don’t get scared. I’ve typically been able to leave my chronic anxiety in a box when parenting, but it seems like this is going to be particularly hard to do now.

At the time, C&F replied, in part:

I want to begin by saying this: Anyone who is not anxious right now is in denial. That’s fine: If denial helps them to cope, I’m not criticizing them—as long as they are also following the guidelines for social distancing, hand-washing, and other sensible precautions. My husband, for instance, who is customarily very anxious, insists he’s not anxious at all about this. Cool, I say, but you’re not going anywhere. And he’s OK with that. There’s nothing neurotic about being fearful of something that’s truly scary. So go easy on yourself.

But quit Googling symptoms. There’s nothing to be gained from it. You now know what the symptoms of this virus are (they haven’t changed since the last time you looked). If you are already hunkering down with your family at home—and, when you do have to go out, using the greatest of care (the American Red Cross offers safety tips, and a number of commonly asked questions are answered here and here)—the best thing you can do is take some deep breaths and think about what to do to manage your anxiety. Because while it’s only natural to feel it, that doesn’t mean you have to let it overtake your life …

Care and Feeding’s advice from the future:

It’s normal to feel anxiety and fear about something that is both largely unfamiliar and dangerous. You can help ease your concerns by taking all the necessary precautions to keep you and your family safe. Practice responsible social distancing—which means limiting your time in public as much as possible–and wear a mask when you do go outdoors and on the rare occasion you might let someone into your home. It would be wise to keep up regular appointments with your therapist so you can talk about your worries. Speak openly with your husband when you feel your anxiety swelling; hopefully, he can help you to get back on steady footing.

Your children are too young to grasp much of what is going on, but you still want to make sure that you speak to them from a place of confidence and reassurance when you address the changes that they are forced to cope with. Explain that you all won’t be going outdoors much because there is a sickness going around and you don’t want them to catch it. Let them know that masks can help keep them safe. If you are calm, your children will be calm too.

On May 1, 2020, “Muddled About Mother’s Day” wrote to Care and Feeding:

This is a question about parents and adult children, but I’m hoping you can help. I’m a mid-30s woman, single, no kids. My parents are just over 70, and they live a few hours away. They are thankfully in good health. I haven’t seen them for about two months because of the pandemic. My siblings are both married with a couple of kids, and everyone in their families is generally staying home, including the kids. My siblings, who live close to my parents, have been getting them groceries, and my parents have been taking socially distanced walks outside with them. Twice, they have gotten together for a meal at someone’s house where they promise that everyone is 6 feet away and washing their hands religiously. I had objections to these gatherings, but I let it go. So far, everyone is thankfully healthy.

My mother wants to see me for Mother’s Day. I normally see her once or twice a month, so this has been hard for her. I think she doesn’t see much risk in it since she’s been seeing my siblings regularly. She insists we would keep the proper distance apart and would stay outside, but of course, people would have to go inside to use the restroom, the kids are running around, etc. I’m still going into work once or twice a week, albeit in a low-risk setting. I live in an area with a much higher infection rate than where they live. I also deal with anxiety. It was mostly under control before all this happened, but now it’s … not. I spiral into what-ifs and worst-case scenarios at least once a day. I’m working on that with a therapist, but I think this is just how it’s going to be for a while.

So I guess my question is, how do I rationally assess the risk of a Mother’s Day visit with appropriate safeguards when my brain is incapable of rationally assessing risk right now? How dangerous is this proposal, really? Relatedly, even if restrictions ease, I can’t see an end to social distancing requirements until there’s a vaccine or at least an effective treatment. How can I tell my mother I’m not coming for Mother’s Day when I have no idea when it will be safe to see her again?

At the time, C&F replied:

Let me assess the risk for you, because you’re both emotionally compromised (of course!) and already someone grappling with anxiety. Don’t go. There is nothing magical about Mother’s Day, which is about selling greeting cards and also making people with horrible mothers or deceased mothers feel awful. You love your mother every day, which is why you have been trying to protect her from the possibility of inadvertent transmission of something that could end her life. Your siblings have made different choices, but those choices are their own. You live in an area of higher viral concentration, so it is not unreasonable or paranoid to love your mother enough to cause her temporary pain in order to risk bringing the potential of great, great harm to an area that so far has been lucky enough to avoid a major cluster.

I want to see my mother on Mother’s Day too. One of my dearest friends has a mother who may already not be with us next Mother’s Day, and every day she loves her mother by not getting on a series of planes to go see her, however much she is desperate to. This is the crummy way you get to love your mother this year. I’m so sorry. As to how to explain it to her, you have two basic options: lying and the truth. You can pretend you’re coming and then announce you are flat on your back with the flu and cannot possibly come. This will open you up to “Well, we can pretend next Sunday is Mother’s Day.” Not a great solution. A better lie, which, like all successful lies, is tied to the truth, is to say you asked your doctor their opinion, and they begged you not to go. A doctor would certainly tell you not to go; we’re just skipping the middleman.

Or just tell the truth: that you don’t want to risk making her sick, or any of your other relatives sick, that you are following the recommendations of expert virologists, that you desperately wish you were there, and that you would love to have a Skype or speakerphone dinner with your extended family that night. If they think you are cruel or heartless or paranoid or anxious, let them. You’re doing the right thing. You’re a good daughter.

Care and Feeding’s advice from the future:

Considering that you live in an area with high infection rates, you’re still going to work and your parents are in their 70s, it really isn’t wise for you to plan a traditional visit for you to see your mother for Mother’s Day. It may be difficult to be separated from your parents this long, but it is essential to keeping them safe. There is a compromise, though your mother may not like it. You can drive to see your parents and stay in the car as you speak to them, while they stand a significant distance away. You can only pull something like that off if you can trust that neither of them (or you) won’t throw caution to the wind and go in for a hug. If you can handle a truly socially distanced visit with your parents–outdoors only, no going inside their home—then perhaps you can see them. Otherwise, you will have to politely explain to your mom that as bad as you’d like to visit, it is important that you stay away in order to protect their health. You can still send a lovely gift and have a video call with her on her special day, but during times like this, we are required to stay apart. You would never forgive yourself if you went to visit your parents and infected one or both of them with COVID. Do a distanced visit or none at all.